Republicans Vow to Fight E.P.A. and Approve Keystone Pipeline

Senator Mitch McConnell, the next majority leader, has already vowed to fight the rules, which could curb planet-warming carbon pollution but ultimately shut down coal-fired power plants in his native Kentucky. Mr. McConnell and other Republicans are, in the meantime, stepping up their demands that the president approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry petroleum from Canadian oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

At this point, Republicans do not have the votes to repeal the E.P.A. regulations, which will have far more impact on curbing carbon emissions than stopping the pipeline, but they say they will use their new powers to delay, defund and otherwise undermine them. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, a prominent skeptic of climate change and the presumed new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is expected to open investigations into the E.P.A., call for cuts in its funding and delay the regulations as long as possible.

The Republicans’ new majority in the Senate also increases their leverage in pushing Mr. Obama to approve the pipeline, although it is still unclear if he will do so.

The White House vowed to fight back. “We know that there will be attempts to impede or scale back our actions,” John D. Podesta, the senior White House counselor who is leading Mr. Obama’s climate agenda, said in a statement on Monday. But he added, “We’re confident we can prevail.”

For Mr. McConnell, fierce opposition to the E.P.A. regulations is more than just a political priority. Kentucky is one of the country’s top coal producers, and coal generates over 90 percent of the state’s electricity. His re-election campaign was driven by a promise to protect Kentucky from what Republicans called Mr. Obama’s “war on coal.”

“I have heard from Kentuckians across the commonwealth about the pain being inflicted on them by E.P.A.’s unilateral actions,” Mr. McConnell said in a statement. “I fully intend to do everything I can do to fight these onerous E.P.A. regulations.”

Mr. Inhofe has gained headlines throughout his career for asserting that the science of human-caused climate change has been falsified. He is the author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” But while Republicans may be able to muster enough of a majority to pass bills that would block or delay the climate rules, it is a near certainty that Mr. Obama would veto such legislation. And Mr. McConnell could not gather the two-thirds majority in the Senate necessary to override a presidential veto.

Still, both Mr. McConnell and Mr. Inhofe are seasoned veterans of congressional procedure, willing and able to deploy a range of tactics designed to slow or hamstring the rules.

Mr. McConnell signaled last week that he, too, wanted to cut the E.P.A.’s budget to keep it from enforcing environmental regulations. Republicans might also include provisions that would repeal the E.P.A. regulations in crucial spending bills — a tactic that could force a standoff between Mr. Obama and Mr. McConnell over funding the government.

Mr. Inhofe was also expected to use his environmental committee chairmanship to hold hearings grilling Gina McCarthy, the E.P.A. administrator. As chairman of the committee during the Bush administration, Mr. Inhofe did not hesitate to investigate the environmental policies of his own party. “He was willing to do aggressive oversight during the Bush administration,” said Andrew Wheeler, a former chief of staff for Mr. Inhofe. “This time, it’s going to be very aggressive.”

But some environmentalists said Mr. Inhofe’s assault could backfire politically. “If the Republican Party doubles down on this brand of climate denial, it will go very badly for them,” said David Doniger, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.

Republicans also planned to use their majority to enact legislation requiring the president to approve the Keystone pipeline. Republicans and the oil industry have issued angry calls for construction of the pipeline, which they see as a crucial conduit for oil. Environmentalists have campaigned against the project, which they see as a symbol of environmental degradation. Mr. Obama has delayed a decision on the project for years, as the State Department conducted numerous reviews of its impact on the nation’s environment, economy and national security.

The State Department is now awaiting a decision by a Nebraska court on the route of the pipeline before any decision is made.

If Republicans send a Keystone bill to Mr. Obama before the Nebraska verdict, the president is likely to veto it. But people familiar with the president’s thinking say that when it comes to climate change policy, Mr. Obama sees the E.P.A. regulations as the centerpiece of his environmental agenda and the Keystone pipeline as a sideline issue.

Asked about the project at a news conference last week, Mr. Obama said, “I’m going to let that process play out.” Then he added, “And I’m just going to gather up the facts.”

Republicans were likely to add a Keystone-approval provision to key spending bills, again daring Mr. Obama to veto such a measure. Mr. Obama appeared willing to veto such measures to protect the climate change rules, which could have an impact on the nation’s energy economy for the coming decades. But he may not be willing to do so for the pipeline, a single piece of infrastructure.

“I think there is probably a deal to be had on Keystone,” said David Goldwyn, who led the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources in Mr. Obama’s first term. “If Republicans attach Keystone to a budget bill, I don’t think he’s so principally opposed to it that he would veto it.”

Lawmakers Aim to Fire More Federal Employees in 2015

Lawmakers Aim to Fire More Federal Employees in 2015

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced legislation that would require agencies to fire employees who haven't paid their taxes.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced legislation that would require agencies to fire employees who haven’t paid their taxes. Cliff Owen/Associated Press

Some lawmakers are looking to the new Congress to pass legislation to ease the firing of federal employees, with hopes the Republican-controlled Senate will be friendlier to the idea.

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., in July introduced a bill to mitigate the hurdles in firing and suspending senior executives at federal agencies. The Senior Executive Service Accountability Act cleared the House in September. Despite receiving no resistance in the lower chamber, the Senate has yet to take up the bill.

A spokeswoman for Walberg told Government Executive it is unlikely the Senate will move on the bill before the new session begins in January. Walberg plans to start from scratch next year, however, and expects future Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to bring it up for a vote after the House once again passes the measure.

The bill, as currently written, would allow agencies to suspend SES employees for 14 days or less without pay, require the executives to pay back any paid leave used during investigations if they result in a guilty verdict, increase the SES probationary period to two years and expand the definition of fireable offenses.

The likeliest candidate to replace Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., as the chief overseer of the federal workforce, has ideas of his own to hold malfeasant federal employees accountable. In each of the last two sessions of Congress, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has introduced legislation to require federal agencies to fire any employees delinquent on tax debts. M.J. Henshaw, a spokeswoman for Chaffetz, said the legislator will “definitely” prioritize the bill again next year.

“Obviously, with the new Republican-controlled Senate, he’s optimistic,” Henshaw said. She added previous iterations of the bill had bipartisan support, and Chaffetz is hopeful that in the new Congress he “can get it across the finish line.”

The most recent data from the Internal Revenue Service showed about 116,000 federal employees had unpaid tax bills, meaning Chaffetz’s bill would terminate nearly 4 percent of the workforce.

The House voted down the legislation in 2013, after the previous Congress had approved it. However, from Chaffetz’s potential new perch atop the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he could use his influence to finally send the bill to the White House.

Chaffetz recently told the Salt Lake Tribune, speaking of the Republican sweep of the midterm election, “We now have the votes and we have the ability to call the agenda.”

In another measure amied at holding federal employees to higher standards, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., has introduced the Federal Records Accountability Act, which would force agencies to fire any employee found guilty of manipulating or destroying a federal record. While the measure faces an uncertain future, it cleared the House in September. A Meadows spokeswoman said the lawmaker is still hopeful the bill can pass during the lame duck session of Congress, and did not comment on what might happen if it does not.

Any of these bills would likely require 60 votes for passage in the Senate, but Republicans would need only about a half dozen Democratic supporters, so long as the GOP caucus stays united. President Obama, of course, would also have to sign the bill into law. He has demonstrated willingness throughout his presidency to compromise on issues important to the federal workforce, most recently by signing the Veterans Affairs Department reforms that included firing provisions some of his own appointees found troublesome.

Frances Beinecke: Ignoring the Public, GOP Leadership Promises Worst Attack on Environmental Protection in Decades

Frances Beinecke: Ignoring the Public, GOP Leadership Promises Worst Attack on Environmental Protection in Decades

By: Frances Beiinecke, NRDC Switchboard

November 6, 2014 – Concerns about the economy and heath care may have dominated the midterms, but the election results have unleashed a major threat to our children’s health and the environment. The Senate is now in the control of a handful of GOP leaders who promise to trash clean air and water and allow unlimited climate change pollution.

This pro-polluter agenda is not what the majority of Americans want. Poll after poll shows strong support for environmental protection. An ABC/Washington Post survey, for instance, found that 7 in 10 Americans view climate change as a serious problem and support federal action to reduce carbon pollution. Candidates who led on climate issues in Congress or the campaign trail won in Michigan, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Yet incoming Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner ignore these views. They have laid out a plan that would threaten our children’s health and hamstring our ability to protect future generations from climate change.

We can prevent this onslaught if we raise our voices and hold lawmakers accountable.

I know because we’ve done it before. We did it when we broke former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. We did it when we prevented more than 500 anti-environmental votes in the House from creating rollbacks to environmental law over the past four years. And we will do it again.

Now is the time to act, before the GOP’s pro-polluter plan takes hold. It would halt progress on environmental protections and strip away long-standing safeguards. This is a radical effort to dismantle bedrock laws that have stood firm for decades. And in pursuit of this agenda, Republican leaders have threatened to push America to the brink of another government shutdown.

Here’s some of what GOP leaders have said they would do to America:

1. Block the Environmental Protection Agency from limiting dangerous carbon pollution from power plants—the most important step we can take to curb climate-changing carbon pollution.

2. Stop an EPA proposal to restore protections to streams and wetlands that feed into the drinking water supplies of 117 million Americans.

3. Prevent the EPA from even proposing new safeguards for smog-causing ozone; scientists have found current standards are too lax, forcing people to breathe air that is unhealthy and even fatal for children and adults with asthma and other lung problems.

4. Take away the ability of scientists and experts to set health and environmental standards and give politicians the power to decide what is safe for our families using the so-called REINS Act—a law that would require Congressional approval for every new standard and gut our nation’s time-tested method of review.

There are many more: forcing approval of the disastrous Keystone XL pipeline, opening our coastal waters and the Arctic Refuge to risky oil drilling, blocking federal efforts to protect drinking water from oil and gas “fracking” activity, and opening our national forests to loggers, to name just a few.

These extreme actions would put people and places at risk. They would also endanger an entire system of environmental protection that generations of Americans have relied upon.

Over the past four decades, our nation’s laws have made our air safer to breathe and our water cleaner to drink. Many of these laws were passed with broad bipartisan support and signed by Republican presidents. By calling for a radical overhaul of this tradition, current GOP leaders reveal how out of step they are with Americans. NRDC is willing to work with Republicans who want to move forward on environmental protection, but so far leaders are only taking extreme positions, calling for rollbacks and promoting climate denial.

Republican leader Newt Gingrich overreached in a similar way with his Contract on America. NRDC helped stop him from gutting environmental safeguards, because we mobilized people to raise their voices. We will do the same with the McConnell-Boehner Contract with America. We will call on lawmakers to protect our children’s health and shield future generations from climate change.

Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

Six Areas Where the New Congress Could Squeeze Feds

 Six Areas Where the New Congress Could Squeeze Feds

Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

The midterm election did not go the way federal employee advocates had hoped.

Most of the candidates backed by federal labor groups lost, and those unions are already expressing concern about what a Republican-controlled Congress will mean for their members.

It is not hard to see where that fear stems from; Republicans, at times with President Obama’s blessing, have repeatedly used the federal workforce as a mechanism for reducing the federal debt and pointed fingers at malfeasant federal employees as responsible for all of government’s ills.

Federal employee unions say their members have sacrificed enough, contributing — according to their calculations — $138 billion toward deficit reduction.

Not everyone agrees, however. Obama has a history of compromising on issues important to federal employees and his post-election call for renewed compromise could make feds’ pay and benefits a prime target during his final two years in office.

Here’s a look at where feds should be the most concerned.

1. Retirement pensions

Obama has twice agreed to raise the percentage of each paycheck federal employees must contribute toward the Federal Employees Retirement System. In 2012, Congress approved a measure to increase the contribution rate from to 3.1 percent for new hires, from 0.8 percent. As part of a 2013 budget deal, feds hired in 2014 and beyond pay 4.4 percent of their salaries toward their pensions. Military retirees were scheduled to receive lower cost of living adjustment for their benefits, but that plan was later scrapped by Congress.

So could it happen again? Absolutely. Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recently sent a letter to the Congressional Budget Office asking for evaluations on a series of proposals to overhaul FERS, including “adjusting the retirement contributions of federal employees.” The lawmakers’ other suggestions included altering the formula for the defined benefit, as well as reducing the pension while increasing the role of the Thrift Savings Plan.

2. The Ryan budget

The good news for federal employees: Ryan is likely to move over to the House Ways and Means Committee, meaning he will give up his post as budget point man. The bad news: Ryan — a former vice presidential nominee and a 2016 contender — is still a major player in Congress and his twice House-backed budget would face a much friendlier Senate if a similar bill were sent over in 2015.

Ryan’s budget, among other things, called for feds to pay 6.35 percent of their paychecks toward their pensions. It also outlined a 10 percent, attrition-based federal workforce reduction plan. Collen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said after the election she was worried about “the return of the Ryan budget.”

The blueprint would restore full, pre-sequester funding to the Defense Department, which he proposed paying for by cutting nondefense spending by nearly $800 billion by 2024.

3. Sequestration

The aforementioned budget deal crafted by Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., provided agencies with temporary relief in 2014 and 2015 from the mandatory budget caps implemented through the 2011 Budget Control Act. Sequestration was designed as a 10-year program, creating the possibility — or perhaps probability, in the soon-to-be increasingly divided government — of a political showdown when the 2016 appropriations process starts next year.

In 2013, some federal agencies forced their employees to take unpaid furlough days — though fewer than they originally anticipated. Before the 2013 budget deal was struck, most agencies said they would not require furloughs in the future. However, two years removed from contingency planning and with continued uncertainty about future funding, agencies could be less prepared for dramatically reduced budgets than they once were.

Even if feds avoided furloughs, hiring freezes could kick back in and mission-critical operations could once again be in jeopardy.

4. Pay freeze

Ever on the mind of federal workers, the annual pay raise presents another area in which Obama has shown a willingness to bend. Obama proposed a two-year pay freeze beginning in 2011, and accepted a third-consecutive year without a pay increase in 2013. Feds received a 1 percent raise in 2014 and are on track to receive the same salary bump in 2015, but even that increase was historically low.

J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, vowed to fight for a “meaningful pay raise that closes the gap between the federal and private sectors.” One recent study found that gap was 35 percent.

Outside of a few fed-friendly lawmakers, no one on Capitol Hill — or in the White House — has shown much interest in giving federal employees a bigger, if any, annual raise.

5. Civil service protections 

In the wake of the patient scheduling scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department earlier this year, lawmakers from all stripes wanted to hold the federal executives responsible accountable. Republicans repeatedly called for a loosening of the red tape that typically ties up the federal firing process. Some Democrats sought to ensure some due process rights for the department’s employees, and ultimately a compromise was struck that allowed for an expedited appeals process.

Since Obama signed that bill into law, the Republican-controlled House has moved on two separate bills to ease the firing of certain federal employees. While those measures have, to date, received no action in the Democratic-controlled Senate, there is no reason to suspect the same will apply when Republicans take over. In fact, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said one of the most pressing issues come 2015 is tackling “an antiquated government bureaucracy ill-equipped to serve a citizenry facing 21st-century challenges, from disease control to caring for veterans.”

6. Government shutdown

This would perhaps be higher on our list, if not for assurances from McConnell a shutdown was outside the realm of possibility.

“There is no possibility of a government shutdown,” McConnell told Time. “Remember me? I’m the guy that gets us out of government shutdowns.”

Still, McConnell may have difficulty convincing the most conservative members of his caucus to compromise with Obama on spending bills. The first test will come before the Senate switches control, as the current continuing resolution is set to expire Dec. 11.

(Image via Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com)

After election, unions brace for attacks on pay, retirement benefits

Nov. 5, 2014 – 01:56PM   |  By ANDY MEDICI

Washington Landmarks Begin To Re-Open As Governmen

Unions are worried about congressional attacks on pay and benefits. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

The next few years will be tough for federal employees as Congress tries harder to cut federal pay and benefits, according to union leaders.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she is concerned that the new Congress will try to cut federal retirement benefits and reduce the size of the workforce.

“In the lame duck session and when the new Congress convenes, NTEU will be pressing for adequate agency funding. Severe budget cuts have resulted in staffing shortages, insufficient training and a reduction in services to the public,” Colleen Kelley said.

In the Senate, Republicans captured the majority of seats, while maintaining the party’s hold on the House of Representatives.

She said there were numerous bills targeting federal employees over the last year and she expects to see more of that legislation in January, when the new Congress convenes.

Kelley also cited an Oct. 29 letter from Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., asking the Congressional Budget Office to weigh various retirement benefit changes as a cause for concern.

But one of the most important short-term priorities is the passage of a new funding bill to keep the government open – the current continuing resolution lasts until Dec. 11, according to Kelley.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the union will work with anyone in Congress to protect federal pay and benefits.

He said the union will focus on securing a larger pay raise for federal employees, fighting back against cuts to benefits and ending the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.

“At the end of the day we’re always going to do what’s best for hardworking government employees, and we’re going to use every resource at our disposal to protect their pay, benefits, and jobs from whatever challenges lay ahead,” Cox said.